Manhattan – Not the One I Know, Woody

By Ezra Stead

Manhattan, USA, 1979

Directed by Woody Allen

Manhattan is beautifully shot an well-acted, but also pretentious and self-absorbed. In the interest of returning this site to our original mission statement of “Movies I Didn’t Get,” I am now going to take on a film that is generally considered to be something of a sacred cow. I have had a long and tumultuous relationship with the films of Woody Allen, partly because, even more than the average artist, his personal life is so very intertwined with his work. Even when not playing the lead character himself, as he so frequently does, Woody’s protagonists are generally thinly veiled (or not at all veiled, as he says in the underrated 1997 film Deconstructing Harry) versions of himself, and the stories he tells are often segments of his own life story. At his best (Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, Hannah and Her Sisters), he produces smart, funny, insightful work that truly captures the human condition in a universal way. At his worst (Celebrity, the dreadfully overrated Midnight in Paris), his work can be insufferably self-absorbed and pretentious. Though the critical establishment would appear to strongly disagree with me on this, I find Woody’s 1979 “masterpiece” Manhattan to be mostly in this latter camp. 

Woody stars as Isaac, an obvious surrogate for Allen’s real-life self, though Isaac is a novelist instead of a filmmaker. Isaac is a terminally immature man in his early 40s, and this immaturity is plainly evidenced by the fact that, as the film begins, he is dating a 17-year-old high school student named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). This is where the film begins to lose any relatability for me, after a lovely opening sequence featuring Gordon Willis’s stunning black-and-white photography of New York City (Willis’s work throughout is stellar, and clearly a large part of the film’s sterling reputation to this day). Isaac takes Tracy out with his own age-appropriate friends, Yale (Michael Murphy) and Yale’s wife, Emily (Anne Byrne). Though there is some light joking about the subject, overall, no one seems to have any problem with the fact that a 42-year-old man is sleeping with a high school student. Not to make this some sort of moral crusade, but for me, a fundamental flaw in the character and my ability to relate to him is that Allen seems to want the audience to accept this unnatural (and brazenly illegal) courtship as a sort of cute character trait of Isaac’s. “Oh, Isaac, that lovable rogue. He’s so emotionally insecure that he’s idealizing this naïve young girl out of all proportion to reality. Let’s root for him and hope he finds true love, for his dilemma is truly ours as well.” Sorry, that just doesn’t work for me.

As the film plods on in its neurotic, self-absorbed way – thankfully relieved by moments of sheer cinematographic beauty and, occasionally, some funny and insightful dialogue – Isaac also becomes infatuated with Mary (Diane Keaton), Yale’s mistress, with whom he eventually breaks up and subsequently encourages Isaac to pursue. This is the way Allen seems to see women in so many of his films, as objects of pursuit to be discarded or handed off to another man when they have outlived their usefulness. Isaac is initially put off by Mary’s brash, opinionated ways; when they first meet, he decides he hates her for her mannered, nervous rejection of a litany of great artists, whose names she scornfully rattles off in order to display her own intellectual independence.

This is one of the better moments in the film, and it is interesting to consider how important common interests are to the success of a relationship, and how a strong disagreement with someone can grow into a sort of obsession with that person, like a thorn in the brain that can’t be removed. However, to me personally, Keaton has never been less appealing than she is in this film. While her Annie Hall works wonderfully as an object of undying nostalgia in that film, here she seems to me to be exactly what Isaac first surmises: a pretentious, annoying pseudo-intellectual who rejects anything that isn’t the so-called “avant-grade.” It’s certainly not bad acting on Keaton’s part, but the character is so repugnant to me that, by comparison, Isaac almost becomes likable. Almost. His inability to relate to a woman his own age, however, and his ultimate return to the idealization of his own lost youth in the form of Tracy, makes Isaac the even less empathetic character. I completely understand the Peter Pan syndrome of not wanting to grow up, but that doesn’t really make it okay to screw a high school kid, and the film’s tone clearly does want us to relate to and forgive this idiosyncrasy of Isaac’s.

By far, the most insurmountable and central problem of the film is its title. This, Allen seems to be saying, is what New York City is, and while the opening and closing montages of the cityscape, scored by the smooth sounds of George Gershwin, certainly evokes the sort of nostalgic feelings felt by people who love this city, I find it incredibly arrogant and pretentious of Allen to imply that this character, and this story, are representative of all of Manhattan. Yes, the city was and is full of navel-gazing intellectuals who can’t see past their own lives and loves in any significant way, but that is hardly all there is to the city. Granted, I have not lived in New York nearly half as long as Allen, and it is not as important to my being as it is to his, but in the three years I have lived here, I can safely say that there is a galaxy of experience not even hinted at in this film. I’ll put it this way: Spike Lee titled his 1989 New York City masterpiece Do the Right Thing, not Brooklyn, or Bedford-Stuyvesant, and that film encapsulates a much more varied experience than Manhattan does.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City.

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